Carnoustie: reshaped and econditioned


Sean Dudley
By Sean Dudley

The 1999 Open, held at the Carnoustie links on the north-east coast of Scotland, was one of the most memorable, and controversial, in the Championship's long history. Memorable because of the spectacular collapse of Jean van de Velde, who stood on the 72nd tee with a three shot lead, only to visit the Barry Burn en route to a seven and for Paul Lawrie's brilliant final round of 67, and two subsequent finishing birdies to win the four hole play-off. And controversial because of the conditioning of the links that resulted in a winning score of 290, six over par.

Carnoustie had missed out on the Open since Tom Watson's victory in 1975, because of concerns over access and accommodation. Given the complaints from players and media alike, it's a testimony to the underlying strength of the golf course that the Championship should return to the county of Angus only eight years later. The complaints from 1999 related primarily to the height and lushness of the rough, and the narrowness of the fairways – especially the fact that the high rough began, in most cases, almost directly at the fairway edges. This year, however, golfers can expect to see a different Carnoustie.

As well as changes in conditioning, the course has made a number of significant design changes, under the supervision of architect Martin Hawtree.

Over the last few years, Hawtree and his chosen contractor, John Greasley, have made alterations to the third, sixth and seventeenth holes. The former, known as Jockie's Burn, has seen the most extensive changes, as both Hawtree and the Open authorities felt it was too easy for Championship play. It will still play at 337 yards, but the newly-rebuilt hole now features a more difficult lay-up shot, with an island of rough in the middle of the fairway requiring the player to make a decision about exactly where to place his tee shot. Another area of rough extending out into the fairway will make players who choose to play a longer tee shot think about how to carry the new rough, while still ensuring the ball pulls up short of the burn that crosses in front of the green.

The sixth hole is among Carnoustie's most famous. Renamed Hogan's Alley and marked with a plaque because of the American legend's play during the 1953 Open, when in every round, he chose to place his tee shot in the narrow gap between the central bunkers and the out of bounds fence. Previously the strategic value of the hole had been lost because of the greater carry distance achieved by today's players. A new bunker has been added thirty yards beyond the existing cluster, and slightly to its right, extending the carry to 310 yards. Now, it is hoped, players will be compelled to take on Hogan's Alley as the great man did, rather than simply blasting over the bunkers.

More recently, Hawtree has remodelled the rough area between the seventeenth and eighteenth holes, introducing humps and hollows where hitherto the land was flat. Previously, the featureless nature of the land – and the fact that the rough had not grown well – had made it a popular bailout area for golfers unwilling to take on the 'island' fairway on the intimidating seventeenth. Now, though, the area offers much less likelihood of a decent lie, with undulating ground that has been turfed with natural fescuedominated rough taken from elsewhere on the links. This change may prove extremely significant, making Carnoustie's already legendary finish even tougher! Head greenkeeper John Philp and his team have spent much of the time between Opens removing large numbers of conifers from the rough areas of the golf course to return it to its natural, spartan, links feel. Philp's team have also been working very closely with R&A agronomists to deliver a course playing hard and bouncy, after the acclaim given to the setup at Royal Liverpool last year – although the weather may not cooperate! A trial run in 2006 saw the water being turned off all the way through the spring in the run-up to July; and the plan is for the same programme this year.